Making It New:
The Bible and Modernist Book Arts
By Richard W. Oram and Ryan Hildebrand
The King James Bible: Its History and Influence is the first large exhibition devoted to the Bible at the Ransom Center since the 1960s. Although the focus is on the 400th anniversary of the greatest English Bible, we have seized the occasion as the ideal opportunity to display early English Bibles from the collections, as well as some of the finest examples of modern book design featuring Biblical texts. From the very beginning of printing, the Bible was regarded as the ultimate challenge to a book designer. Thus Johann Gutenberg's 42-line Bible of 1454-55 is appropriately the first item in the exhibition. Another particularly handsome early Bible on view was printed on vellum by Nicolas Jenson, a French printer who set up shop in Venice in the 1470s. He is best known for his pioneering Roman types, epitomes of classical simplicity.
Around 1900, the Jenson Roman types served as inspirations for the founders of the Doves Press, bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and engraver Emery Walker, who had both been closely associated with the Kelmscott Press of William Morris. While Morris's notion of the book as a handmade, organic totality lay behind the Doves Press's enterprise, the Doves rejected Morris's ornate style in favor of an uncompromisingly austere modernism. In the Doves Press Bible, published in five volumes between 1903 and 1905, we see foreshadowed the eventual triumph of minimalism in later twentieth-century book design.
There is, however, one very striking exception to the austerity: the coup de théâtre of the initial "I" in red used for the opening of Genesis: "In the Beginning..." This initial, which runs down the entire margin of the page, was designed and executed by calligrapher Edward Johnston. The exhibition includes Johnston's contemporary notebook (along with his British Museum library call slips) in which he copied initial letters from illuminated medieval manuscripts. Next to it is a 1902 letter from Johnston to Cobden-Sanderson referencing the Doves Press Bible.
Completing the triple crown of the English fine press movement (along with the Kelmscott and the Doves) is C. H. St. John Hornby's Ashendene Press. In 1902 the press produced The Song of Songs Which Is Solomon's in an edition of only 40 copies, all printed on vellum and each uniquely illuminated. The book uses the Subiaco typeface, commissioned by Hornby at the suggestion of William Morris's associate Sydney Cockerell and based on designs by Morris after a typeface in Augustine's De Civitate Dei (1467). Characteristically, the early modern fine printers "made it new" by returning to their fifteenth-century roots. However beautifully printed the text may be, it is Florence Kingsford's illuminated and gilt double title-page that sets this title among the press's best work. The Ransom Center's copy is Hornsby's own.
Bruce Rogers's Oxford Lectern Bible, completed in 1935, is in turn a direct descendent of the Doves Press Bible. Typographer Joseph Blumenthal has called this enormous volume, for use during church services, the most important book of the twentieth century. The sheer size (12 by 16 inches) and number of plates (more than 1,200) presented Rogers with enormous design challenges. Unlike most of the examples of fine press work in the exhibition, which were set by hand, this Bible was typeset using modern equipment and printed on Oxford University Press's large presses. The book is an outstanding example of how modern printing technology can co-exist with superior design. It is no wonder that it became a touchstone for typographers and designers for the rest of the century.
The Nonesuch Press was founded in London by Francis Meynell. It generally outsourced printing to other presses while maintaining meticulous control over the design elements. From 1925 to 1927 Nonesuch published the magnificent five-volume The Holy Bible Reprinted According to the Authorized Version of 1611. Just prior to The Holy Bible, Nonesuch published Genesis: Twelve Woodcuts, which pairs the text of Genesis with Paul Nash's abstract images. While each book is successful in its own right, the two could not be more different. Nash's bold woodcuts, accompanied by Rudolf Koch's rugged and subtly exotic Neuland type, are a far cry from the refined typography and intricate line engravings of the later work.
The 1930s were the heyday of another English firm, the Golden Cockerel Press, whose archive is at the Ransom Center. By far the most important wood engraver associated with the press was Eric Gill, an illustrator, designer, and typographer originally trained as a stone carver. We were fortunate to be able to draw upon our extensive collections of Gill's work, including multiple proofs and original pear wood engraved blocks.
Gill was a devout but highly unconventional Catholic who believed that eroticism was the expression of an essentially religious impulse. The Golden Cockerel Press's Song of Songs was an ideal text for Gill's frank illustrations of nudity and lovemaking. His masterpiece, The Four Gospels (1931), is in every sense a celebration of the physicality of life. Christ as he is depicted in Gill's theatrical initial letters is very much the Word made flesh: he is intensely human in his emaciation and raw suffering. Everywhere in the initial letters we find details of everyday life as it is actually lived and human beings (often nude) as they really are. In these respects Gill's art is distinctively modernist.
François-Louis Schmied established himself in France's bibliophilic circles by printing and publishing his own books. His American protégé, Ward Ritchie, has called Le Cantique des Cantiques (1925)—once again, the sensuous fine press favorite Song of Songs—"one of the great Art Deco books of the Twentieth Century." Some of the book's prints employ upwards of 12 colors, each color requiring its own printing block, and Schmied reputedly engraved 1,000 blocks for this work. Also featured in the exhibition are Schmied's La Création (1928), Ruth et Booz (1930), Le Livres des Rois (1930), and L'Avènement de Salomon (1930), all monuments of modernist book design.
Drawing on the history of illuminated Jewish manuscripts from the Middle Ages, American illustrator Arthur Szyk designed and illustrated his elaborate presentation of the Haggadah (partly comprised of Old Testament passages) between 1932 and 1938. Contemporary world events are reflected in the illustrations, which draw parallels between the policies of Nazi Germany and the genocide of the Pharaoh of Exodus. Given the political overtones of Szyk's work, it was not easy for him to find a publisher, and even his eventual publisher, Beaconsfield Press of London, required that he censor some of his work's overt allusions to Nazi Germany. The resulting book, printed entirely on vellum, is a unique amalgamation of illuminated manuscript and modern fine printing traditions, placing reproductions of Szyk's original watercolor and gouache miniatures alongside letterpress Hebrew and English text.
Richard Oram, Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian, and Ryan Hildebrand, Book Cataloging Department Head and Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Curator, are co-curators of the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.